Can Fred Hoiberg turn Nebraska into a winner?

AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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LINCOLN, Neb. — It was Nick Nurse, a man who shared his Iowa upbringing and had risen to the same NBA coaching heights, that perhaps most clearly articulated the general thinking regarding Fred Hoiberg’s decision to become the head coach at Nebraska.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I am,” the Toronto Raptors coach told reporters in Chicago last month. “I guess I didn’t know if he’d go right back into it. I thought maybe there’d be one of the real premier jobs or something that he wouldn’t take. Not saying Nebraska isn’t a great job and obviously a premier league. I’m sure he can make it a great job.”

Hoiberg, who turned his alma mater Iowa State from a woebegone program into a perennial NCAA tournament team and Big 12 contender, has gone from coaching a franchise the defined the sport to a generation to guiding a program that has only known generations of losing.

Why, exactly, would Hoiberg come here, to a place where football reigns supreme, high-level local basketball prospects are about as common as beachfront property and has no tradition to speak of?

“We feel that we can build a program that consistently wins,” Hoiberg said earlier this week.

Nebraska is certainly betting on it. Big.

The Huskers have committed $25 million over seven years to Hoiberg along with an assistant salary pool of $1 million per year.

“We paid top dollar,” said Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos, who gave football coach Scott Frost a seven-year, $35 million deal in late 2017.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Nebraska is spending big on its athletics in the hopes its football program can recapture some semblance of success it had in the 1990s while jumpstarting a basketball program that has rarely been relevant nationally decade after decade. In a world where money talks, the Huskers are beginning to scream as one of the country’s richest athletic departments as it now reaps the benefits for the first time of a full Big Ten revenue distribution share after joining the league in 2011.

“The Big Ten money is huge,” Moos said. “We’ve got tremendous revenue streams coming into our program that I’m comfortable, with the blessing of my chancellor and my president, to pay top dollar for top coaches.

“Nebraska is a destination. That brand means something. I’m really excited for our future with this program.”

If Nebraska is a destination, it’s partly because no coaches have been able to get out alive. Tim Miles was fired after one NCAA tournament appearance in seven years. Doc Sadler was cut loose after six years and no tourney appearances. Six years was how long Barry Collier lasted before resigning, also without a tourney trip. Before that Danny Nee went to four tournaments in four-straight years during his 14-year tenure in Lincoln, but was fired as the school’s winningest coach.

In total, the Huskers have seven all-time NCAA tournament appearances, among the fewest from Power 5 schools. They have zero all-time tournament wins.

Hoiberg, who took Iowa State to four NCAA tournaments in five years, will be among the Big Ten’s wealthiest coaches in a place with one of its poorest traditions. It’s a pairing that makes more sense than it would initially seem, though. Hoiberg could have sat out this upcoming season and collected $5 million from the Bulls and waited to see if one of the high-level gigs – something like Arizona or Texas – opened up, but the famously competitive Hoiberg, who once chucked his Pinewood Derby car across a parking lot in disgust when it failed to take first place, wasn’t inclined to wait around. His post-firing days were spent tagging along with his wife to yoga and coffee, sitting in his robe putting together puzzles and watching ‘Real Housewives’ reruns. A little different than the night-in, night-out adrenaline rush that comes with stalking an NBA sideline.

So sitting out never seemed like a real option, and Nebraska isn’t that far off from what Hoiberg inherited nine years ago at Iowa State, only with deeper pockets.

Hoiberg’s history at his alma mater and in his hometown is well documented, as The Mayor went from high school star to Cyclone All-American to 10-year NBA vet and back to revive a program that had fallen on hard times.

Lincoln has a similar, if far less extensive, pull. His grandfather, Jerry Bush, coached the Huskers from 1954-63. His other grandfather, Otto Hoiberg, was a Nebraska professor for nearly three decades. His parents are Nebraska alums, and he was born in Lincoln before moving to Ames a few years later.

So for Hoiberg, who covets comfort and familiarity, Nebraska made sense. He had history there. It’s the type of reclamation job he’s succeeded at before.

It’s also a marriage of serendipity. Nebraska had a bulging back account, an opening and a desire to raise its profile. Hoiberg had a high price tag, an eagerness to get back on the bench and the resume – both personally and professionally – to excite a fan base focused on football but who also turn out to basketball by the droves at Pinnacle Bank Arena, a $184 million gem in a newly-revitalized downtown.

“I see real potential here to have long-term success. And a lot of that has to do with the facilities that are here. We played an exhibition game a couple years ago when I was coaching for the Bulls, and I was just absolutely amazed,” Hoiberg said.

The coach, the money and the facilities are in place, but will that translate into winning? The Huskers may never have had a combination in those three areas like they do now, but the every one they’ve tried previously haven’t worked well enough to keep their NCAA tournament alive for more than 40 minutes.

“There are just so many things going for us,” Moos said, “and the myth that we can’t be successful, I’ve never bought into that.

“All this about never won a tournament game – if we’re competing in the upper half of the Big Ten year in and year out, we’re going to go to the tournament and win games.”

Hoiberg was introduced as the 28th coach in the history of Nebraska basketball Tuesday, emerging on the third floor of Memorial Stadium to much fanfare in an elevator that had been adorned with graphics to resembled a bank vault, an allusion to The Vault nickname for Nebraska’s home arena. Cheerleaders waived pom-poms. Fans cheered from a balcony. The football coaching staff watched from the back of the room.

The Huskers had their coach, and their hope.

A little more than an hour later, Hoiberg stepped back into that same elevator and those same doors that opened a new era of Nebraska basketball closed with him inside.